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What To Do When a Colleague Is Battling Cancer

Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be devastating. It often requires treatment that puts the patient on the precipice of death to save their life. It can also impact professional and personal relationships. Because it’s such a big deal, many people don’t know how to respond when someone they know is diagnosed with this life-threatening illness.

If you’ve recently found out a coworker has the “Big C,” you may feel clueless about what to say or do. It’s natural to be cautious, but it’s important not to be so worried about doing the wrong thing that you don’t do anything at all. People who have a good support system may have an easier time getting through treatments and having a successful outcome. Here are a few things you can do when a colleague is battling cancer.

Show Them You Care

Sometimes, words can feel inadequate when you’re dealing with something as big as cancer. That’s why it can be more effective to show your colleague how much you care through non-verbal means. Acts of service, no matter how small, can go a long way to help your coworker feel loved and appreciated. You can do nice things on your own or get the entire office together and come up with something kind to do together.

There are plenty of ways to show a coworker you care. Ideas include sending them get well soon gifts, covering for them at work as needed, and even driving them to and from appointments. Gift cards also come in handy for someone who’s undergoing expensive hospital treatments. Consider providing gift cards for groceries, restaurants, and gas stations. Your colleague will undoubtedly appreciate the help paying for everyday necessities.

Respect Their Privacy

Some people are more private than others, especially when it comes to personal matters like their health. It’s important to learn how to “read the room” when inquiring about a team member’s diagnosis and how they’re handling it. If they seem uncomfortable or hesitant to share, let them know they don’t have to. Explain that you’re always there and ready to lend a listening ear if they need to talk to someone.

If they do open up to you about recent changes in their life, resist the urge to tell everyone in the office what you’ve learned. Keep your conversations confidential to build and maintain trust. If your colleague wants Susan in finance to know what they’re going through, they’ll tell her. It’s not your place to reveal personal information about them to anyone else. The exception to this rule is if your coworker specifically asks you to update others on their condition.

Treat Them Normally

When someone you know receives a life-changing diagnosis, it can be tempting to treat them with kid gloves. You may suddenly wonder what to say when they arrive at work each day. You may question whether it’s appropriate to joke around with them or if you should be serious in their presence.

While everyone is different, most people want to maintain a sense of normalcy after a cancer diagnosis. They don’t want to be treated differently by their coworkers or anyone else in their life. By interacting with them as you normally would, you can help them feel grounded when a big part of their life has been turned upside-down.

Offer to Help With Specific Tasks

Seemingly simple tasks can seem insurmountable to someone who’s dealing with the physical and emotional impact of a new life-threatening diagnosis. Stepping in to lighten the load is one of the kindest things you can do. Be careful not to say things like, “Let me know if I can help in any way.” This can be too open-ended and put the burden of communication on the other person.

Instead, say things like, “Hey, I’d be happy to attend your Wednesday afternoon meeting and take notes for you.” Or you could offer to take on weekly tasks that may require more physical or mental energy than your coworker currently has. You could offer to walk their dog or pick up groceries. The more specific you can be about what you’re willing to do, the easier it will be for the other person to accept your assistance.

Educate Yourself

If you’re not familiar with cancer, it can be hard to support someone through their treatment journey. There are many different types and stages of cancer. There are also many different treatment options available. The more you understand about your co-worker’s specific diagnosis and treatment plan, the easier it will be to help them through it.

Beyond Google searches, there are other ways to learn more about cancer. The Cancer Research Institute offers a wealth of knowledge about cutting-edge therapies and breakthrough science on its website. You can also browse oncology journals and medical libraries for more information on your friend’s specific diagnosis. You could even attend patient summits, workshops, and webinars with your coworker to expand your knowledge while providing moral support.

Having a strong support system is important for anyone battling a serious illness. It can help the affected person feel less scared and alone. It can also make it easier for them to get through challenging treatments and maintain a positive outlook. If you aren’t sure what to do or say after a colleague’s cancer diagnosis, follow these suggestions. Remember, it’s far better to reach out and risk doing the “wrong thing” than it is to do nothing at all.